Friday, May 24, 2024

Reign Interrupted

It was on the afternoon of Sept. 20 that Keith Scott was shot to death after a brief confrontation with police, setting off several days of protests and rioting across Charlotte. I watched it unfold on the television, and it was all so tragic and foreign, the sort of thing that always seemed to take place elsewhere but had finally come to North Carolina.

This happened during the campaign season, and it was one more log on the fire, one more event punctuating the nasty and visceral political debates swirling around law and order, both in the streets and in our public restrooms, the latter courtesy of House Bill 2. It was hard to digest, to make sense of the jumble. But I remember saying to myself these three little words:

We are Charlotte.

When I first spoke the words aloud in early fall, they sounded uncomfortable. Perhaps a bit disloyal. I live in Winston-Salem, and it has been only in the past few years that I had stopped alternating between trying to ignore or actively disliking our state’s largest and more important city. Part of that personal reset happened during a reporting trip for a Fortune story in 2012. The scars of the recession were still fresh, but the optimism in Charlotte is contagious, and there is a sincerity there that either oozes or flows depending on your view of
its inhabitants.

But the phrase, “We are Charlotte,” has stayed with me, and I have continued to wrestle with the meaning. What I kept returning to was this idea that the big issues in our society — how we respect individuals, the power of the state, the fairness in our economy — were all on display in Charlotte. The election didn’t make them go away. On the contrary, they are here to stay.  It’s what makes  Charlotte Business North Carolina’s Mover and Shaker of the Year.

Now, you can say no, that you aren’t Charlotte, never have been, and never will be. But there is a different geography and aggregation taking place. Much of it is not by choice. It doesn’t matter whether we live there. Or work there. Or even go there. It’s more basic. “We are Charlotte” means that the events that thrust the city into the harsh glare of the nightly news this past year are not just Charlotte’s challenges but all of ours. This is not to suggest that the outlines of the challenges or even the potential remedies are agreed upon. But in the riots and protests and the battle over HB2, I was glimpsing the future. Tomorrow had showed up, for better or worse, in a city that insists on calling its downtown Uptown and whose best creative minds had come up with the unfortunate slogan “Charlotte’s got a lot.”

When the Federal Writers’ Project produced its North Carolina Guide in 1955, the authors called Charlotte “the nucleus of a galaxy of prosperous, expanding piedmont cities.” It noted the importance of Independence Square, at the intersection of Trade and Tryon streets, and how residential neighborhoods nearby were already being pushed aside by business. Not much has changed.

I thought about this description in late November, when downtown Charlotte was awash in holiday cheer. I stood at the square and studied the four statues on its corners: Commerce, Industry, Transportation and Future. Good concepts all. But they suggested an ethos rooted in the idea that if the city takes care of the traffic and the construction, everything will be all right. Life goes on. That’s been the case for Charlotte during most of its history, after its gold rush ended, when it became the quintessential transactional city, one with a limited culture of dissent and an abiding faith in the ability of institutions to find a path through the forest of modernity.

As befits a place run by accomplished businesspeople and lawyers, Charlotte prides itself on manners and solutions. Problems are not really problems, just obstacles waiting to be overcome through hard work, good will and getting the right people to the table — preferably to hammer out a deal behind closed doors.

By that yardstick, 2016 was a disaster for the city. Its deals weren’t done or perhaps not done well. The Charlotte City Council approved its non-discrimination ordinance in February, adding the phrases “gender expression and gender identity,” among others, to a list that already included race, color and religion. The state’s backlash was swift. HB2 became law on March 23. The backlash to the backlash was just as swift. Expansions canceled. Tournaments moved. The list goes on. While a compromise is now likely after Charlotte’s council voted Dec. 19 to rescind its ordinance, many suspect councilors picked the fight to reassert Charlotte’s independence as its very own city-state, a Carthage on the Catawba. Others contend that our General Assembly, as configured, understands that nothing sells to the folks back home like singling out Charlotte as Exhibit A of our world run wild.

There’s truth to both. But history is on the side of Charlotte. If we’ve learned anything from the shameful shadows of our American past, it’s that human rights move in one direction. It wasn’t that long ago that women couldn’t vote. That segregation was OK. That gay people couldn’t marry. Fighting Charlotte over its nondiscrimination clause is good politics but terrible policy. At some point, the General Assembly will cave, or the courts will do it for them. Hopefully, in the process, it won’t extract too much revenge. As former N.C. Rep. Charles Jeter, a Huntersville Republican, told The Charlotte Observer, “I sure as hell hope Charlotte doesn’t need anything legislatively. Because they’re not getting it.”

Just after Thanksgiving, Mecklenburg County District Attorney Andrew Murray announced that no criminal charges would be filed against the officer who shot Scott.

There were demonstrations again, but no rioting. Maybe it was the weather. Maybe people were persuaded by Murray’s exhaustive report, which showed that Scott had a gun in his hand and would not drop it. You could feel the sigh of relief across the city.

The day before the DA released his report, the Charlotte Chamber held its annual meeting. It was a somber affair. Charlotte’s selling point is one of  livability. Spicy, but not too spicy. The Protestant work ethic with decent Thai food. Two nights of riots in September had shown the nation another side of the city.

Even before the unrest, there was growing knowledge of the poverty and inequality gnawing away at the hull of Charlotte. A report in 2015 suggested Mecklenburg was the worst big county in America in which to grow up poor. The methodology is a little shaky, but picking nits misses the point. Despite the Brazilian steakhouses and luxury condos and Dean & Deluca filling up at lunchtime, Charlotte is a city of haves and have- nots. So is every other city in North Carolina, but the perception of Charlotte was that its growth — which is eye-popping — had solved that problem. It hasn’t.

“A lot of people now understand the magnitude of the challenge,” says  state Sen. Joel Ford, who may challenge Mayor Jennifer Roberts in a Democratic primary in September. There’s been an appearance of success, he says, but the Scott shooting — as both symbol and tragic event — exposed the problems of a city where the needs of its residents can’t keep pace with demand.

So, when I say “We are Charlotte,” that’s what I mean. Persistent poverty and a lack of opportunity aren’t just problems in the cities. We can pretend to make them so, but that’s simply using a Band-Aid as a blindfold. It’s morally wrong and, in the end, it doesn’t work and won’t help North Carolina.

It’s easy to use Charlotte as a metaphor for all that is wrong with our world: that we are becoming a nation where the rule of law and authority of the police don’t matter; where institutions have let us down; where individual rights are being perverted; and where government has encouraged laziness and dependency. Let Charlotte descend into the muck, so long as we can go there to work and maybe catch a Hornets game or hit IKEA for some Swedish meatballs. But that’s rhetoric, not reality. If Charlotte fails, if its enormous growth engine stalls, it is not the well-heeled progressives and Rockefeller Republicans in south Charlotte who are going to suffer the most. It’s the folks streaming in from Kannapolis and Gastonia who will take it on the chin.

And then there’s this, which is most important: If Charlotte — with all its resources, can-do-itis, task forces and foundations — can’t figure out how to help the city’s sprawling underclass share more equitably in the pie, then all of us, regardless of our city, are in a fix. The wolf will find our door as well.

The elections have clarified none of this. Mecklenburg County voted overwhelmingly against Donald Trump and for Roy Cooper. Without HB2, without Pat McCrory going to battle against the city he once led, Cooper would have stalled out, bereft of a message. I would not suggest that Trump wanted riots in Charlotte after the Scott shooting, but uncertainty and chaos, the apparent instability in our nation, and the need for change were at the forefront of his campaign. Being the law-and-order candidate only works if there is a perception among voters that we are without both. 

Many of those I talked with about Charlotte are confident about the way forward. “We’re still standing,” says state Sen. Jeff Jackson. “We’re going to show folks that Charlotte can take a punch as well as any city in America.”

To Jackson’s point, businesses are expanding. Ambitious newcomers continue to arrive. Its residents have made peace with the Panthers and their swoon after coming so close to winning it all. Perhaps, with the clarity of hindsight, the Super Bowl loss last Feburary was the first tremor of all that was to come. We just weren’t paying close enough attention.

Just after the election, I watched the Panthers in a Thursday night game. They were no longer America’s team, just one more franchise battling concussions and seeking the playoffs.

It was a dreadful, uninspired game. TV announcers have an almost primal need to fill dead time with words, so at one point they just started gabbing about construction in downtown Charlotte. They counted off the cranes — one, two, three, four, five — and they seemed to imply that everything was going to be OK, if not for the Panthers then at least for the city they call home. Cranes are to Charlotte what swallows are to Capistrano. They always return. And we take comfort in that fact at our own risk. 

Ken Otterbourg
Ken Otterbourg
Ken Otterbourg is a writer who lives in Winston-Salem.

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